Border should not limit activities of voluntary and community sectors

Opinion: Funding is estimated to have fallen by 35% over five years

Had the Civic Forum survived it might have headed off trouble over the flags protests. Photograph: Reuters

Had the Civic Forum survived it might have headed off trouble over the flags protests. Photograph: Reuters


The community and voluntary sectors have been key players in the peace process in Northern Ireland during the past 20 years, their organisations and groups seen as “important building blocks in establishing and sustaining the community-based elements that underpinned the paramilitary ceasefires”, in the words of their main analyst, Dr Nick Acheson of the University of Ulster.

That is why they were given such strong representation in the Civic Forum which, had it been allowed by the politicians to survive, might have played a key role in heading off last year’s violence around the flags issue.

Community and voluntary organisations were also protected from government cuts until recently: indeed their funding from the Northern Ireland Executive and the British government actually rose by more than 50 per cent between 2006 and 2011. However, with cutbacks , they are now facing into a future of relying more on their own skills and resources. Successful large voluntary organisations, such as the Bryson Charitable Group and Praxis Care, have already moved into providing services for government in areas such as health, supported housing, recycling and social care in a big way.

Striking contrast
The contrast with the Republic could not be more striking. Here community and voluntary organisations have been hit particularly hard by the financial collapse and austerity. The Dublin-based social researcher Brian Harvey estimates that while overall government spending between 2008 and 2013 fell by 4.3 per cent, funding to the community and voluntary sectors was slashed by 35 per cent.

Philanthropic funding is also drying up. According to one recent estimate, two foundations, Atlantic Philanthropies and the One Foundation, make up 86 per cent of the philanthropic funding going to non-profit groups in the Republic. Both are due to end their funding by 2020.

The Northern Irish and Irish community and voluntary sectors have collaborated surprisingly little over the period of the peace process. This may begin to change with a North-South conference being held in Newry today, organised by Building Change Trust.

Two jurisdictions
The conference will discuss a report I compiled with Brian Harvey. It features eight concrete proposals for how the sectors in the two jurisdictions might work more closely together.

It will examine lessons in all-island management from voluntary bodies like Depaul Ireland (an organisation for the homeless based in the Republic doing significant work in the North); Extern (an organisation for ex-prisoners and other marginalised people based in the North doing significant work in the Republic); and Co-operation Ireland (a peacebuilding charity with an equal foot in both jurisdictions).

It will also look at Northern housing associations that have a major presence in the Republic and at how highly successful Northern social enterprises such as the Bryson Group in Belfast, the Holywell Trust in Derry and the Fermanagh Trust in Enniskillen – with their innovative work in recycling, energy efficiency, cultural heritage, job creation and shared education – might share their experience with their counterparts in the Republic.

What community and voluntary workers in both jurisdictions now have in common is that they are required to balance the difficult tasks of continuing to advocate for often vulnerable grassroots groups, while also making a living by providing services to those groups.

It is a balancing act they will have to undertake with significantly fewer resources in future, and any cross-Border learning they exchange can only be beneficial in such vital work.

Andy Pollak is former director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies.

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